Full text of Neal Barnard, on Tackling Diabetes With a Bold New Dietary Approach at TEDxFremont conference
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Today, I’d like to talk about turning around an epidemic. 100 million Americans right now do have either diabetes or pre-diabetes, and that puts them at risk for amputations, for heart disease, for blindness and we’re exporting this epidemic overseas.
Now the word epidemic comes from Old Greek: ‘epi’ means ‘on’, ‘demos’ means ‘people’, so an epidemic is something we study with sterile statistics, and maps, and graphs, but the truth is, it’s something that impinges directly on people, on living, breathing human-beings.
But my story actually starts in the basement of a Minneapolis hospital. The year before I went to medical school, I was the morgue attendant, or as I’d like to say, the autopsy assistant. What that meant was, whenever anybody died, I would bring the body out of the cooler, and put the body on an examination table, and the pathologist would come into the room.
And one day, a person died in a hospital of a massive heart attack. Probably from eating hospital food, but that’s another story.
So to examine the heart, you have to remove a section of ribs, and this is not done with great delicacy: you take what looks like a garden clipper, and you go crunch, crunch, crunch, through the ribs on this side, and crunch, crunch, crunch, through the ribs on this side. And the pathologist pulled this big high wedge of ribs off the chest, set it on the table.
And he knew I was going to be going to medical school, so he wanted to make sure that I saw everything. And he would say, “Neal, look at this. These are the coronary arteries,” — we call them coronary because they crown the heart — and he sliced one open, and he said, “Look inside.”
And so with my gloved finger, I poked around, and it wasn’t a wide open artery, it had what was sort of like chewing gum inside, except that it was hard like a rock, and he said, “That’s your bacon and eggs, Neal, that’s atherosclerosis.”
And we looked at the carotid arteries going to the brain, the arteries going to the legs, the arteries going to the kidneys. They all had this hardening of the arteries, that’s atherosclerosis.
He said, “We see the beginnings of this in two-thirds of people by age 23”, which happened to be the exact age that I was at the time. So, anyway, he writes up his findings, “massive atherosclerosis, acute myocardial infarction,” and he leaves the room.
So, I picked up the ribs and put them back in the chest, tried to make them fit right with the other ribs, and I sewed up the skin, and cleaned up, and then I went out and went up to the cafeteria, where it turned out they were serving ribs for lunch.
Now, let me tell you something, I knew about ribs. I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, I come from a long line of cattle ranchers and I remember the smell of the cows out in the field, I remember the smell of the cows in my grandpa’s barn and I remember driving a load of cattle with my uncle to East Saint Louis, to the National Stockyards, and I remember the National Stockyards hotel, two dollars a night, and the smell of that room.
And I have to say, everyday in my life, it was roast beef, baked potatoes, and corn. Except for special occasions, when it was roast beef, baked potatoes, and peas. And that’s the sort of the way we ate, but my father did not like the cattle business, so he left, left the family farm, and he went to medical school.
And he spent his life at the Fargo clinic treating diabetes, he became a diabetes expert for the whole region. And I have to say my father really was frustrated because patients were given diets that they did not like. What we would say is, or what they would say, is diabetes is a condition where it’s too much sugar in your blood, so don’t eat anything that turns to sugar, so don’t eat bread, don’t eat fruit, don’t eat pasta, rice, sweet potatoes, don’t eat regular potatoes, don’t eat beans, don’t eat carrots; all these things had to be limited and while you are at it, cut calories, and that’s what people were supposed to adhere to, that gets old by Wednesday.
Patients were also given medicines, and they were given needles, and instructions on how to stick their fingers and how to inject insulin. And despite all of this, diabetes never got better, it always progressed, and it then became something that we’re exporting overseas.